The BBC’s “Rise of the Cyber Athletes”: A review

Last week the BBC broadcast a feature on ESports, somewhat cringe inducingly titled “The Rise of the Cyber Athletes”. You can watch the broadcast on twitch here  or on youtube here if it takes your fancy, but take note, the broadcast is aimed at those who have little to no understanding of ESports, and is mostly presented around a debate of whether gaming can be considered a sport and whether gamers can be considered athletes.

Before getting on to the actual meat of the broadcast, I think this initial line of thought is a rather problematic way of presenting the debate. Rather, I feel attempting to classify gaming as a sport does a disservice to both other sports and gaming. Just in the same way attempting to classify gamers as athletes doesn’t really do any justice to either pro gamers or athletes. However, this is the stance the BBC took, and perhaps if you consider its target audience, this approach was the way for them to garner attention and viewers who might not otherwise be interested.

Luckily, this comparison was debunked later on in the broadcast, and while this question often underlined earlier parts of the broadcast, it never seemed to be asked excessively, rather, traditional sports were often used as a point of comparison, for instance, showing that viewer numbers of a big football match on TV are likely to be similar to those of a major ESports event on twitch, or comparing reaction times of the best gamers to those of sprinters to show how quick gamers at the top level have to be.

Sadly, early on in the broadcast these comparisons were often followed up by a typical ‘Is sitting at a desk a sport?’ or similar reaction. While some viewers were no doubt thinking (and often commenting on social media) the same thing, I feel the BBC sometimes leaned too far in that direction in an odd display of impartiality. It felt as though the excitement level had to be reined in at certain times to be within acceptable BBC levels.

Add to this that the games on show did not reflect ESports as a whole. Perhaps due to the likely audience, the two games on show in the studio were Hearthstone and Fifa, which were probably selected because they would be easy for the general public to process and understand over the complexities of a DotA 2 or StarCraft game.

If the above sounds like an all too familiar let down by the mainstream media, then fear not. The redemption of this broadcast were the out of studio segments and interviews with big names in the industry. The presenter went to an ESports major, IEM San Jose, and other majors were referenced across a decent variety of games. Many of the people who were interviewed, either in studio or in video segments, were truly big names in UK and world ESports. Among the people interviewed were the head of GFinity, a UK gaming company that is currently building the UK’s first ESports stadium in London, big names from the Electronic Sports League, and the head of Dignitas, a major ESports team. These passionate and excited individuals speaking about what they love added an energy to the programme that was otherwise missing.

Another thing that was done quite well was showing the gap between normal gamers and pro gamers and the effort required to make it. The amount of dedication and training needed to make it into professional gaming is on a par with any traditional sports athlete, so much so that a segment of the broadcast was devoted to wondering if ESports would ever be in the Olympics. However, talk of ESports as an Olympic event misses the point.  ESports and E-Competition has grown and will continue growing regardless of the mainstream’s reaction to it, and should remain separate from traditional sports, even if in some ways they are comparable.

In conclusion, overall, while initially I was nonplussed by the same old phrases being used by the mainstream to describe gaming and the lack of content for those already following ESports, the broadcast as a whole seemed like a decent introduction to ESports for those who might have missed its growth in the last few years, or those who didn’t realise such a thing even exists. The BBC clearly aimed this programme at those people, and in that respect, I feel they have done a good job in showing them about this whole new world of competition they might not know about.

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